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Blood contamination among Lankans high due to hazardous chemicals

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  • International study finds two widely-used PFAS – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – in blood which may cause cardiovascular diseases, asthma, elevated blood pressure and many other health complications
  • States no regulations for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
  • Sri Lanka Fire Brigade has a stockpile of around 50,000 litres of fire-fighting foams likely containing PFOSimported in the late 1980s 

By Shanika Sriyananda

An international study revealed that Sri Lanka is yet to regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which contain over 4,500 man-made fluorinated chemicals that may cause cardiovascular diseases, asthma, elevated blood pressure, and many other health complications.

The study found blood contamination among Sri Lankans due to PFAS.

IPEN, which is a global network of interested NGOs working together for a world free of toxic chemicals, in its latest study report, stated that although Sri Lanka became a party to the Stockholm Convention in 2005 – the treaty added PFOS to its global restriction list in 2009 – and the amendment went into legal force in Sri Lanka in 2010, most of the PFAS are not yet regulated.

According to the IPEN study, blood contamination due to PFASwas also recorded in Japan, Malaysiaand Vietnam while PFAS contamination of breast milk has been reported in India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia and Vietnam.

“ The properties of PFAS have resulted in extensive use as surfactants and surface-active agents in products. Two widely-used members of this class have been perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluoroocta­noic acid (PFOA). PFOA is found in items such as non–stick kitchenware, food processing equipment, surfactants and surface treatment agents in textiles, paper and paints, fire fighting foams, stain-resistant carpets, carpet cleaning liquids, house dust, microwave popcorn bags, water, food, and Teflon,”  CEJ’s Environmental Officer Indika Rajapaksha said.

In 2019, IPEN participating organisations in 12 Middle Eastern and Asian countries conducted surveys to explore possible PFAS uses and pollution sources, scientific studies and government actions, including those under the Stockholm Convention. Countries covered in the study include Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

The Centre for Environmental Justice(CEJ) supported IPEN in carrying out the study in Sri Lanka, and it was also revealed that according to the government inventory, the Sri Lanka Fire Brigade has a stockpile of around 50,000 litres of fire-fighting foams imported in the late 1980s which likely contain PFOS.

“A major fire-fighting foam importer supplies PFAS-containing foams, but does not indicate the PFAS content in the documentation. According to them, all foams supplied by the company are UL-registered and non-PFOS containing, eco-friendly brands. However, these foams likely contain C6 PFAS,” the reported stated.

According to the Revised National Implementation Plan under the Stockholm Convention, fire-fighting foams are the likely major source of PFOS in the country with 17,837 kg/year as an upper estimate.

Rajapaksa said that it was important to dispose of these toxic substances safely before they contaminate the fire-fighters in Sri Lanka and the environment.

The IPEN study stated that coastal water, sediments, river water and groundwater have been contaminated due to PFAS, and a study done in 2008 had also found PFOS in fish of up to 12.4 ng/g wet weight and PFOA up to 0.74 ng/g. PFAS in the water included PFOS, PFOA, N-EtFOSAA, PFOSA, and THPFOS.

However, the newly formed national waste management policy, in response to a case filed by the Centre for Environmental Justice (SCFR152/17), includes policies to manage all chemical waste.

PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States, since the 1940s, and PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals.

These chemicals, which are very persistent in the environment and in the human body, accumulate over time, causing numerous adverse health effects.

It is also attributed to abnormal menstruation, lower birth weight in infants, possible increased risk of female infertility due to endometriosis, and decreased lung function in children with asthma.

A study done by Dr. Keerthi S. Guruge in 2005 with tea plantation workers found harmful fluorinated chemicals, such as PFOS, PFHxS, PFUnA, PFDA, PFNA, and PFOA, in all areas. Therewere relatively high levels of PFOS and PFOA among conventional tea workers in the rural areas (PFOS mean: 6.3 ng/ml; range: 1.8-17.5 ng/ml, and PFOA mean: 9.06 ng/ml; range: 1.9-23.5 ng/ml), and were similar to those in people living in Colombo.

However, these chemicals were found to be in comparatively low levels among organic tea workers than conventional tea workers. For example, PFOS levels in organic tea workers were 0.96 ng/ml compared to 6.3 ng/ml in conventional tea workers.

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